Sunderland lost their first match under recently-appointed manager Paolo Di Canio, but can the Italian steer the club to safety?
Di Canio appears to be permanently surrounded by media attention or some form of controversy, whether it be his well-publicised bust-ups with players at his previous clubs Swindon Town or his alleged political views, the media never fail to create a frenzy wherever he may be.
But his appointment, only 24 hours after his predecessor Martin O’Neill was sacked, came as a huge surprise to many and divided opinions amongst the Sunderland faithful.
Di Canio was appointed in his place almost instantly, after having left Swindon Town claiming his position was "untenable".
Could it be possible that the same situation could arise at Sunderland?
Many dedicated fans, particularly war veterans strongly against fascism and who fought against it during the Second World War, contested Ellis Short’s decision. And there could be many more that join them.
The claims that Di Canio, 44, could have fascist views arose when he publicly claimed "I am not a racist, I am a fascist". The quote was largely forgotten about during his reign at League One’s Swindon Town, but his appointment as head coach at a high-profile club such as the north-east outfit was destined to cause the issue to arise.
It has resulted in the Durham Miner’s Association, within whom many members fought against the rise of fascism during the 1940s, to ask for their symbolic banner on show in the Stadium of Light to be returned to them. It was a powerful gesture from a group of people who have been strongly linked with Sunderland Football Club throughout their history, and one which has the capability to shock fans who may have been supportive of Di Canio’s appointment.
Other supporter groups have also stated that they will boycott Sunderland’s future fixtures, in protest at the Italian’s appointment.
So, despite an already turbulent start to his two-and-a-half-year contract with the Black Cats, it is vital that the club move from the unnecessary drama and focus on their forthcoming games, as tricky visits to London sides Chelsea and Tottenham, before what is sure to be a feisty derby against local rivals Newcastle United, await them.
The squad that Di Canio inherits from O’Neill is a fairly average one. O’Neill appears to have gained a reputation for overspending on players who don’t live up to their generally high expectations, and this is shown in the Irishman’s summer recruitments. Steven Fletcher cost the club £10m, while the once-promising winger Adam Johnson took £12m out of Short’s pocket.
However, he has proved to be a disappointing addition to the squad.
If it wasn’t for the goals being scored by Fletcher, Sunderland could be in an even worse predicament. Across the squad, even if they are too good to get the club relegated, the players just don’t seem capable of propelling the club onto bigger things, and the potential glory of lifting a trophy.
So do they need a new, fresh manager with optimistic ideas to take them forward?
Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has been exceptional this season, and throughout his career at Sunderland. However, goals which he has conceded are largely down to his error strewn defence, with Titus Bramble proving his inconsistency and incapability of performing at the highest level, far too often.
In midfield, Lee Cattermole has been ruled out for the rest of the season, and the subsequent absence of the club captain means that Di Canio will have the job of electing a new one for the Chelsea game this weekend. In his place, Seb Larsson seems to be only useful for set pieces, and Craig Gardner doesn’t appear to have the high amount of talent needed to replace the gaping hole that Cattermole has left behind.
While the young Jack Colback has talent, he too doesn’t possess the skill needed to fill in for his captain aptly enough to deal with the threat of players such as Frank Lampard and Eden Hazard.
And they have been ineffectual up top, too, with Fletcher bailing them out when they appear to be in trouble. But he is now out for the season as well, leaving the burden to former Swansea bench warmer, Danny Graham, to score the club’s goals.
Di Canio certainly has a tough job on his hands. In his first seven games in charge at Swindon Town, Di Canio won two, but lost five. Will that be good enough to ensure survival if he repeats that record with Sunderland?
With Sunderland level on points with 18th-placed Wigan, they are sure to be looking nervously over their shoulders. But will Di Canio be able to use his excellent man-management skills to pull the team together and move them clear of the relegation dogfight?
Perhaps they can then look onwards and upwards under their new manager.
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